Twelve Lat Winter

Island Notes 77

Bonaire is just a coco palm above 12-degrees latitude in the southern Caribbean.  Spin around the globe on that line and you run into Managua, Nicaragua; the Pacific’s Bikini Atoll; Bien Hoa, Vietnam; Dijbouti, the tiny Horn of Africa republic; and Grenada, the island of the spices.  But most of what lays under, not south of, that line is ocean blue.

It never freezes at 12-Lat. The lowest temps I felt on Bonaire to date were the low 70s.  It hasn’t gone above the middle 90s on the high end. This Fahrenheit groove provides comfortable, warm weather all the time.  Clothes are minimal.  So are the utility bills. Bitching about the weather is inexcusable.

The view from my old Washington DC office.

“Yeah, but you will miss the seasons,” was the refrain from some friends and colleagues as we prepared to depart metro DC three years ago. I was confident that I could make the change.  As we sip champagne in celebration to the start of our fourth year on island, I think about that life we left.  We spent three cold winters in the nation’s capitol before fleeing.  I remember leaving our townhouse along the Potomac at 5:50am to start my commute from Alexandria to work.  The wind would whip over the river and make my bones ache.  From L’Enfant metro station 35 minutes later, I would walk to my office located on the DC shore of the Potomac.  Inextricably, the wind would clock around 180° and hit me face on.  Pulling the long, wool overcoat tight, I would trudge on, dreaming about my island home of the future.

Lost in Havana again.

Forays into the upper latitudes of cold and ice since then have been severely limited.  One December a couple of years back I found myself on the streets of Havana inadequately clothed and shivering in low 60s temps caused by a deep dipping Artic Clipper.  This past Christmas, I saw ice on the windshield in southern Florida, bad news for the orange farmers and not very good for me either.  But for the rest of the time, I have stayed sensibly south.

I know.  You probably think I am a wimp.  I am certain that is true for my Canadian friends, Colette and Richard, having braved (is that the correct word?) -40 temps this winter in Fort McMurray, Alberta.  I accept my climatic moniker.  But before you judge too strongly, I did grow up in Cleveland, Ohio, known for its fierce winds where winters bring on the dreaded ‘lake effect’ of Lake Erie piling up snow along all that is near the shore.  This was back in the day of ‘real’ winters when 3-foot high drifts were the norm.  No ground was to be seen for months.  And that is not even taking into consideration the snow-to-slush-to-snow cycles and the frequent tree-cracking ice storms.  Yeah, I am a wimp, but a clever one.  I escaped.

The sweet boat, Tamaika, on the mooring.

The people in DC were wrong.  Twelve-Lat does have ‘seasons’.  Things change this time of year.  The sun bends low in the morning to where my east-facing bamboo shade needs to be dropped for comfortable hammock time.  The Southern Cross starts to reappear on the infinite horizon to the south-southwest.  Daytime temperatures mostly reach 82° with strong Northeast trade winds.  My, my.  That is perfect to the skin and the soul.  Nighttime dips cooler so that I grab a thin blanket about 3am and half cover the bod.  The swim to the boat is brisk this time of year with shoreline water about 80°.  A small morning shower brings a brilliant rainbow to start the day.  I pass Tamaika, a small local boat complete with a new, oversized pirate flag while I’m out sailing.  I wave to the skipper.  He waves back.  I point to the new Jolly Rogers flapping from the boat’s mast and give the thumbs up.  He points to his two kids in the boat as the excuse.  I flash the OK sign and sail on.  Twelve-Lat winter, my kind of weather.

Through the Eyes of the Flamingo

Island Notes 76

Blame it on La Niña.  That’s what most people do here.  That temptress of a weather system is the atmospheric counterpart to the macho El Niño-Southern Oscillation climate pattern in the equatorial eastern Pacific Ocean.  This year she overruled El Niño and has taken control of our weather patterns.  The results have been demonstrative.

More rain. Another squall rolls in to the shores of Bonaire.

La Niña has warmed up southern Caribbean waters to the extent that much of our shoreline coral is experiencing extensive bleaching, the loss of the reef’s color due to rising sea temperatures.  My diving buddy, Bruce, and I dove the Wild Side of Bonaire last month since we had a day of little wind.  That allowed us to enter the shore sans the rough, churning waves that the eastern trades typically produce there.  But we discovered a water world below that looked like the slopes of the Taos Ski Basin mid winter.  Large sections of brain coral and other types were bleached like ivory snow. Bruce said only two words to me upon returning to the surface.  “La Niña.”

This southern chiquita has also brought on the rain, buckets of it.  Our normally parched island resembles vine-entangled Costa Rica in some places.  When I walk out of my home at night to walk the dog, I find a gathering of beasts under the outside light in the hallway.  Clearly, the gecko is leading the group in some kind of reptilian discussion while the tiny brown frogs, relatives of the exquisitely colored dart frog, are jockeying for a rebuttal.  We only see these frogies during wet weather.  Yes, it has rained gobs and it does now almost everyday.  I hear some warn of global climate change, the gecko not withstanding.  But I’m putting my money on the gal from south of the border.

It was in this time of heavy precipitation that my friend, Fernando Simál, gathered us volunteers for a preparatory meeting before our quarterly shorebird count.  Fernando works for the national park, and Dutch ladies Esther and Elli, and myself assist him with counting shorebirds four times a year with each session running three days.  We split into two groups to accomplish this and cover all the saliñas, semi-salt water lakes that dot the island.  Monitoring shorebirds has the caché of the ‘canary in the coal mine’ tradition.  A lot can be deduced about changes in the environment by tracking these birds over time.

This road normally flanks the east bank of Goto. It is now submerged and closed to the public

Fernando’s big concern was the Goto, our largest of saliñas located in the north of the island.  We usually walk its mud flat shores for two hours and scan for birds.  That covers about 90% of the lake.  The remainder is done by stopping at places along the road by the second team.

This "No Entry" rock usually sits on a mud flat next to the road.

This year, however, the Goto has swelled its banks due to excessive rain and is perhaps 20-30% larger than normal.  The mud flats are submerged and the perimeter is pushed up into elevated rock areas choked with impenetrable cacti and thorny scrub.  Fernando’s solution?  We survey by kayak.  Esther and I are chosen for the paddle duty.  This is a rare treat since Goto lies within the national park boundaries where boats are prohibited in order to reduce disturbance to the huge flocks of pink flamingos that feed there.

Esther leads the paddling.

We put our 2-person kayak into the brown water about 8:30am.  The golden light is just beginning to spill over the surrounding hills. Esther and I begin the count.  We learn quickly to simply glide into the small coves and glass the shores with our binoculars.  We are silent coming in and the birds don’t flush.  The flamingos, normally very skittish, find us a curiosity and simply stare rather than flee.  We count 14 adults and 6 juveniles.  Normally we count hundreds of flamingos here, but the deep water doesn’t allow for easy feeding.  The mass of the flock has moved to other parts of the islands or perhaps to South American shores 38 miles to the south.

Fernando & Elli drive through foot-deep water over the road to other observation points along the Goto.

A belted kingfisher, the punk rocker of the bird world with its standup head feathers, swoops overhead.  I always laugh when I see this bird with its apparent attitude.  Deep in the shadows we find the peeps—least sandpipers by the dozens, greater and lesser yellowlegs, a black stilt with the longest pink legs I’ve ever seen.  From the waist down, it looks like a sunburned Angelina Jolie.  The rising sun must be hotter than I had imagined.

Passing a rock island to the left. This outcrop is normally surrounded by land.

Esther and I make it to the end of our count after scanning kilometers of shoreline in record time. But now comes the adventure.  We must paddle back across the Goto and into the wind.  The breeze has picked up and small waves smack into the bow.  I get salt water in my eyes and immediately put on my shades.  It is tough paddling.  We can see a spec of metallic reflection across the water.  That’s the truck, our goal.  It is simply time to gut it out and paddle.  It is difficult to talk now due to the sounds of wind and water.  We both drift into our own separate worlds.

In times like this of physical repetition, I usually let me mind wander.  As we push through the waves, I glance around at the surrounding peaks.  There’s Mount Brandaris, the tallest peak on Bonaire, that on a perfectly clear day offers a faint glimpse of far off Venezuela.  To the right are the cliffs that guide the saliña’s waters toward the sea.  I realize that these views are all new to me, completely different perspectives.  No one gets to see the land around here from the middle of the water like this.  I find it captivating.  Now I know how the flocks of pink see their world called the Goto.  I, for the first time, am seeing my island through the eyes of the flamingo.

Esther & I back on shore after our long paddle back to the starting point.